Mark Cavendish changed cycling.
He revolutionised sprinting by taking the leadouts to a higher level, working on his own aerodynamics and being an early adopter of skinsuits and aero helmets. For a while, it made him the clear favourite in every single flat race he rode.
“In 2009 I contested 27 sprints. I won 25 and was second in two – I fucked up in Tirreno and went too early into a headwind, and was getting sick in Missouri,” he says.
But cycling, in turn, changed around him, and his strike rate has gone down in the last few seasons. His lead-out at OPQS was as capable as his HTC lead-out was, if not quite as well-oiled, but they could not impose themselves as HTC could, because the other teams have worked out how to disrupt things.
Sprints are messier and more tactical now, with multiple lead-out trains all striking at different times. The GC men are riding at the front of the bunch deep into the final few kilometres. Even though Cavendish still achieved 11 wins in 2014, a season that will be counted as his most disappointing ever, his reduced win rate at the Tour in 2013 and 2015 shows how far the goalposts have been moved.
My opinion was that Cavendish has also slowed. However, Cavendish says he’s just as fast now as he has always been. The tactics have become more complex, but in terms of simple speed, he is still confident in his ability.
He offers a case study in how things are: that fateful first stage of the 2014 Tour de France.
“I was in the form of my life going into the Tour,” he says. “I was a little heavier than at the Olympics, but so much stronger. In London, I worked really hard to get down to 67 kilos, and lost muscle mass. I’ve kept that muscle this time, and was at 69 kilos. I was really, really on it.”
Stage one was not a straightforward sprint, even notwithstanding the fact that the first sprint of the Tour de France is always more bar brawl than Queensberry Rules. The route had taken in a tricky traverse of the Pennines, with a hard series of climbs. And the final five kilometres contained a sapping series of drags, one taking the riders inside a kilometre to go, the last heading up to the finish line. “Bend, 180 metres to go,” Cavendish adds, where most of us might have rounded up to 200, because we neither have nor need the attention to detail or photographic memory that Cavendish does about finishing sprints.
“I was flying. I was in the 12 when everybody else was in the 11. We’d lost Petacchi, so Renshaw had to do some more work and come over the brow of the hill with a kilometre to go, and down. Giant went with Degenkolb, and Renshaw was starting to get on the limit a bit, so he was flicking his elbow for me to go.
“I let his wheel go five metres then ran up, used the speed and went around him, floating up in the 12. I wanted to go on the bend at 180 to go.
“It wasn’t a good finish for Kittel, in my opinion. I knew Sagan would go early. 180 is still quite far on a hard finish like that, but I knew he’d go as soon as he saw the finish line – I was on his wheel.”
The crux was that bend. The television cameras show a small posse of riders attacking it on the inside, led by Peter Sagan. In the middle of the road, drifting outwards: Mark Cavendish, his head against Simon Gerrans’s shoulder. Gerrans, his escape route to the left shut off by Europcar’s Bryan Coquard, had nowhere to go, his bike locked with Cavendish’s and they were catapulted hard onto the road.
“Hey, stand up,” Cavendish tells me. We stand up, and he pushes me in the chest with his hand, hard. He’s strong, and I stagger backwards a step.
“Again,” he says. He barges me in the same place with his shoulder and once again I’m moved backwards a step.
Then he crouches beside me, and whips his head into my chest. But there’s a lot less power in it and this time I don’t have to move backwards. He’s giving me a physical demonstration that contact with the head doesn’t necessarily have enough power to knock another rider from his bike.
“I didn’t cause the crash. My momentum took me into him and Coquard was leaning on him on the other side, our handlebars locked and we went down.
“I could have prevented it, but then,” he adds, “I’d have lost the stage.”
Cavendish explains another way that sprinting has changed which was perfectly illustrated in Harrogate.
“The gentleman’s agreement is gone now,” he says. “You used to get the GC guys dropping back and letting the sprinters get on with it. It’s not anything to moan about, just that times have changed.
“In fact, they even see it as an advantage. They want to split the bunch and gain those few seconds. In Harrogate, I was battling Simon Gerrans with 200 metres to go. That’s because the next day, there was a chance for the yellow jersey for the GC guys. The most likely outcome was a small group sprint, so the jersey might be given on points. They all wanted a high position on the first stage to get that.”
Somehow, this brings us on to the subject of Tom Veelers, who collided with Cavendish in a sprint during the 2013 Tour.
Giant employed Veelers as a “sweeper”. He rode on Kittel’s wheel in the train, meaning that rivals had an extra length to make up, even before trying to attempt the near-impossible and accelerating past Kittel. It’s fair to say that Cavendish is still seething about their crash.
“If you’re on the tops of your brake hoods with 200 metres to go, in a sprint, you’re causing danger to the peloton. Secondly, looking over your shoulder, moving over, you know you are causing danger. He did those two things.”
And suddenly, it’s the old Mark Cavendish – self-righteous, angry, swearing and intense.
“With that shit last year, he knows he was in the wrong. I don’t hold a grudge, except with this,” he says.
I change the subject to Cavendish’s career in general, but he’s on a roll now, and as soon as I ask if Milan-Sanremo will feature in his ambitions for 2015, he’s off again. I’d forgotten they were still planning to add the extra hill at the finish of the race.
“They fucked it up there,” he says, and in the space of five words he has gone from a placid lake to a stormy sea. “How dare they ruin this incredible race with so much history. Vegni [the organiser] said, well, we’ve never had Chris Froome or Contador ride Milan-Sanremo. Well, you’ve never had Cipollini or McEwen riding Lombardia.
“Why make another Lombardia? It’s discrimination against sprinters, thinking we are lesser riders. Sanremo is not a sprint. You have to earn the right to sprint in Sanremo.”
He sounds seriously annoyed now. Luckily, just at that moment, Robert the photographer wanders over.
“Nice house,” he says.
Cavendish is a perfectionist, who likes – needs – everything to be just so. I point out that it must make life difficult, but he shakes his head. “It makes life difficult for her!” he says, pointing at [his wife] Peta. So when he tells us that he designed the house himself, it’s not a huge surprise.
“When it was a building site, Mark was walking around, putting his hands up and showing the builders what to do,” Peta says.
“We’ve got a chute from the bedroom, built into the brickwork, which goes straight into the laundry room. I’ve always been massively into interior design,” Cavendish adds. “I see things in lines. I see specific details. I visualise a room and I know exactly what I want. Look, everything in this room is straight, apart from the stairs, and that makes the stairs a focal point.”
He’s right. There are three stairs, curving down from the living room into the dining room, and it somehow looks right.
“And this space is open, so we’ve got an organic-looking table and organic-looking chairs.”
Peta says to him: “You’d say, ‘What white do you want for this doorframe?’ and I’d be, like, I don’t care. Just have a white doorframe.”
“It has to be a certain white,” says Cavendish, defensively. “It has to be a certain way. There are three different colours on the resin on the stairs – there’s a silver, a beige and a white. It had to be perfect.”
He’s off, yet again.
“Right. My Mum – this really winds me up. We had an old bedroom suite in the Isle of Man and I said to her, it doesn’t go with our house, would you like it? It’s a Scandinavian flat-pack house, and this was country furniture, so it didn’t go. There was a bed, two side tables, a vanity unit and a wardrobe. She said the wardrobe won’t fit in the room so we’ll put it in the other room. I said, you can’t do that, it’s a set.
“It just doesn’t work,” he says, exasperated.
The next morning, we follow Cavendish on a ride with local training buddy (and 2015 team-mate) Fabio Sabatini. Hayles leads on the scooter, while Cavendish and Sabatini hit the hills.
Cavendish is still in a relaxed mood. He takes us up the climb of La Riola, just out of Pistoia, where he trained for the Olympic road race, its lower slopes being very similar in gradient to those of Box Hill. He describes it as the “Tuscan Box Hill” and shows us the church where the Olympic training efforts would end.
Then they climb up further, Hayles pootling along behind on the scooter while horse flies take chunks out of his legs and the trees occasionally break and give us a view of the valley below.
I’m watching Cavendish, and while he’s not the most aesthetically pleasing cyclist, I’m struck by the reminder that, while he might not be known as a climber, there’s actually no such thing as a bad climber in the professional peloton. They cruise up easily, talking a lot of the way, at a speed that would have fit amateur cyclists gasping, over ten kilometres up the main road, then onto a virtual goat track which takes us up even more steeply.
In 2014 Cavendish has had the worst year of his career, or at least the worst since his debut in 2007. But you wouldn’t guess it from watching him spinning out his training ride, nor from his reaction to the biggest disappointment of his racing life, crashing out of the Tour. Instead of letting it annoy him, and fester, the way he might have five or six years ago, he’s even turned it into a positive.
“I used to think I was way past halfway in my career,” he’d said the day before. “But now I think it’s less. I missed the Tour, and I realised it is everything to me. Not riding it rejuvenated me.”
But he’s not turned completely philosophical about life. That morning, before the ride, he’d emerged from his house to where Hayles was waiting with the scooter. He looked at an internal door in the garage, tutted, and suddenly looked pissed off, his brow knitting. The door hung slightly ajar.
“Can you shut the door, Rob?” he said in a voice that, in its struggle to remain neutral, betrayed the tension behind it. “You always leave it open. Every time,” he added.
Hayles, his helmet on, either couldn’t hear, or was ignoring the instruction, and the uneasy stand-off continued for an awkward 30 seconds or so. Cavendish was stuck between the equally unpalatable solutions of leaving the door ajar, and closing it himself. In the end, he went for the option of heading off to the café to meet Sabatini and leaving the door open.
Cavendish has changed, a little. But he’s still a little the same.
Edited extract from Rouleur issue 50.